Monday, March 31, 2008

Coming Soon: Kofi Campbell on David Wallace

Two great medievalists who go great together: Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell, author of Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: From Pre- to Postcolonial, will guest blog on David Wallace's book Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn.

Details to follow.

All's quiet on the blog ...

... and I will use this uncharacteristically monastic pause in our verbosity to thank publicly the many friends who made the Cohen family trip to NYC so enjoyable: Karl, Alison, JKW, MKH, and Liza. Many sights were enjoyed. Much food was consumed. Embarrassing photos were snapped (a certain medievalist sitting in the Bug Carousel of the Bronx Zoo -- in a seat shaped like a brown ball, pushed along by an enormous dung beetle; Karl in a large turtle shell; an odd fellow with the ugly head of a doll belonging to his daughter peering out of a coat pocket, making him look like a demented marsupial). None of these images will -- alas! -- appear here at ITM, but if you use your imagination you can almost picture them yourself. Almost.

A family moment that will stay with us for a long time: clichéd as it was, we took a night ride through Central Park on horse-drawn carriage. Snuggled beneath a velvety blanket, watching shadows move through trees and listening to the clop of the horse, coming across those tableaux that seem made for maudlin films but are the inventions of a moment: a raccoon engaged in treetop ballet; two lovers sharing a single iPod headphone, dancing awkwardly to music heard only by them; a skating rink with solitary figure gliding; the yellow lights of distant windows. The carriage's driver, a taciturn young man from Poland, was so touched by the almost-four-year-old Cohen that he let her feed too many carrots to his horse. As we said our good-nights to him, the driver leaned down and gave Katherine a small kiss on her cheek. The dreariness of carting tourists along the same circuit through the same park all day and into the night had lifted, and for a moment all was right in the world.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Thinking About: Translation

I'm still working on that post entitled "Growing Pains" -- all about the last two months of my academic life, and the weird transition into dissertating that has been by turns difficult and exhilarating, but mostly just plain scary. I'm hoping that eventually I'll have a bit more mental space to sort out all of the fragmented "notes" that are populating the "Blogging" section of my Spring 2008 OneNote Notebook (yes, I have sold my soul to Bill Gates -- but OneNote is really fantastic) -- more specifically, I'm hoping that after this weekend, I'll have a little more mental space to think through all of that.

However, part of my brain power has been caught up in a conference I've been helping to organize, and so I'm excited to mention that, this weekend, there's a New York Happening you won't want to miss: Columbia's Center for Literary Translation is putting on the third biannual National Graduate Student Translation Conference! The Keynote is a discussion, featuring our own Michael Scammell with Poet Laureate Charles Simic! Among the many roundtables during the two days, frequent commenter and fellow Anglo-Saxonist LJS will be moderating a roundtable discussion on Multilingualism and Translation, and I will be moderating a session on Translation and the Academy. The other -- and equally important and fun -- part of the conference is a series of workshops: graduate students from around the country are participating in workshops on translations from various languages (everything from Persian to French to Greek to Korean), and I'm going to be workshopping my translations of the Old English Advent Lyrics, and the Old English Wanderer, in one of them! It's a bit overwhelming: it's the first time I've let my translations be viewed by peers who weren't in a translation workshop with me at Columbia, but I'm also very excited to be taking part.

Anyone who has been at an event where the future of Old English studies has come up and I have been in the room will know that one of my major questions about the future of the field is what role new translations and editions will have to play in it. Of course, all you really have to do is read a bit of what I've written on ITM and OENY to notice that. One of the major ambivalences I've had about Old English and translation is the disservice it seems to do to the language, or more aptly, the disservice I do to the language when I try to translate it. And yet translations -- myriad translations -- are necessary in literature. And in life.

However, what is difficult to realize until you set yourself down to do it is that translation is a creative endeavor. As I've been writing about the Old English Orosius this week, I've realized how apparent the lack of concern for translation as creation in and of itself can be. For much of the history of scholarship on the Orosius, the concern has been for the "original" parts, the parts that weren't found in the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos: the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, which interrupt the geographical preface and bring the work of historical inquiry to the court of Alfred the Great, have been subject to intense scrutiny. When the Old English translator embellishes on the story of Babylon, composing an impromptu poem not unlike the Ruin, critics rush to praise the innovation of the translator.

I think that this betrays a fundamental misconception about translation, one that can be phrased two ways. First, it assumes that the real difficulty is innovation: if you can translate from Latin into Old English, what is interesting is composition that is only present in the vernacular. These moments in the text can be BOTH creative AND intellectually apt -- after all, modification to the original must still fit in with the text as a whole. This conception of translation marks it as inherently derivative, and privileges the original text's superior position not in terms of authority, but in terms of originality.

What this conception of translation misses is the difficulty of true translation: the difficulty in being able to pose someone else's words in words that are not their own, but somehow mean in the same way. The difficulty of inhabiting another person's point of view, of sharing a part of their understanding of the world -- and of doing so imperfectly, but respectfully.

Disjointed musings that all go to say firstly that my silence in the blogosphere is reaching an end point (I sincerely hope), and that I will undoubtedly have more to say about translation after my panel on translation in the academy. You may expect a full report. In the mean time, I leave you with an excerpt from the translation of the Wanderer I've submitted for workshop this weekend. It's the part where the voyager falls asleep, and imagines that the birds are his old friends -- only to wake up alone:

He who knows exile will lack lordly learning
and the wisdom of warriors. His sleep will be wretched,
shackeled by dreams. He imagines his lord
embracing him—and lays hands and head
in the lap of his king, as once long ago
he took comfort from joy in the mead-hall.

He awakens alone. Sea-birds bathe, and ruffle their feathers,
skim light over the dark waves in snow and sleet.
Seeing shapes and shades of friends of old,
comrades of the past—he greets them with joy,
hails them aloud, fleeting spirits!
They swim away. Sorrow returns.
Old words are useless to him, who
must send his tired mind far over the waters.

I do not know why my mind is not saddened,
when deep in earth’s darkness, I ponder how brief
are the lives of men, how quickly they leave
the mead hall, so bold and so young.

Happy weekend to all, especially to JJC and family, whom I will see in NYC soon!

cross posted to OENYC.


The Cohens board the 10AM Vamoose bus and arrive in NYC later this afternoon ... for what looks like a wet, windy and cold weekend. We're happy all the same that we'll be seeing so many friends. For their birthdays we even let each child pick a show: Little Mermaid for the soon to be four year old (why do I keep thinking that the only way to make that one interesting is to do it as transvestite theatre?), Blue Man Group for the cusp-of-eleven boy.

We may return with pneumonia, but we'll also be fatter and less rested. That can't be bad.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Another reason to admire Stephanie Trigg

She has crime fighting super powers.

Nothing here, move along

The copyediting and collation of this little baby has kept me preoccupied over the past week, as had a terrific trip to UPenn. The Cohen family leaves for NYC tomorrow, and I am looking forward to seeing the many ITM co-bloggers and readers and commentators and friends who will be rendezvousing with us.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Albina Myth: Standard Reading

So in the comments to this post, Karl writes:
As for the Lynch: "not only as a British foundation myth but also as a cautionary tale about the dangers to society of ambitious-and foreign-women who usurp masculine privilege." That's a standard reading of the text (admittedly little read when Lynch did her article, and still not much read)

That standard reading would be, um, mine ... I admit to being the one who gave it to Lynch, albeit at that time it was part of my dissertation. I think it was also the first time I made it into someone's footnote for something I said.

Anyway, I thought just for fun I'd cut and paste the standard reading here. It's from the second chapter of my book Of Giants. Read Karl's post first ... then, (as Slavoj Zizek would say) Enjoy!

The Albina myth conjoins the rapinous tradition of biblical giants with Geoffrey [of Monmouth]'s secular version and produces a smaller product through the combination, a history with familial interests behind its nationalistic gestures. The spirits who copulate with Albina and her sisters in [the Anglo-Norman account of the founding of Britain] Des grantz geanz are called incubi, malfez, and deables; their offspring are consequently horrifying to behold (a regarder hidous) and abnormally large. Incubi in medieval myth are, like giants, always male. They have no material body of their own, but are nonetheless able to implant an organism (organization of being) within the bodies of the women they violate, causing the birth of a monster. Sexual mother, rapinous incubus, and infant monster are the vertices of an unholy family triangle which obscenely contrasts with the model medieval family of Virgin Mother, sexless Holy Spirit, and sinless divine Son. The Holy Family remains an incorporeal ideal by wholly eliminating sexuality and the body from its narrative of origins, but this second familial triangle violently reinscribes flesh and sex into bodily generation.

The Albina myth translates into monstrous form two conceptualizations of the biological origin of human life as medical science understood it in the Middle Ages. For medieval theorists of the body who followed Aristotle, the mother contributes formless bodily matter (materia) to the child, while the man imposes with his seed (semen) a structure that organizes this inert substance into a sexed and gendered being. The Aristotelian model is obviously another version of Brutus' mythology of nation-building: the woman is the elemental matter from which offspring are produced, just as the land is the raw materia of nation. The influential treatises of the physician Galen, on the other hand, argued that both men and women contribute seed (and therefore structure) to their progeny. The Galenic conceptualization of reproduction corresponds to the rejected model of origin which Albina represents. She and her sisters contribute as much to their progeny as their sexual partners. The conjoining of incubus and errant woman results in a new body that mixes the nature of both, the repudiating monstrum. This monstrous family invokes the domestic triangle of father, mother, and child to illustrate what happens when a body strays from its properly subordinate place in the regulative trigonometry of the idealized medieval household. Albina oversteps her (cultural, biological) place as submissive wife, and disaster ensues. Brutus must intervene and overwrite Galenic equality with Aristotelian masculinism: feminine bodies become as passive in the generation of progeny as they must be in the articulation of familia.

Geoffrey's Historia brought a fragmented political field into widespread coherence through an ideologically cohesive master-signifier: Britain/England, the "Nation-Thing" as sublime object of ideological identification. Circulated almost two hundred years later, long after that cultural unity has been achieved, the Albina myth extends the same ideological intervention to a basic identity relationship by which the larger imagined community writes itself in parvo. Albina and her sisters refused their subject-positions in marriage and attempted to erect a structure for human relationships in which femininity and the maternal were not dominated by or absorbed into masculine mastery. The sisters strove in Greece to bring about a world in which their agency would be absolute, where "none of them would be willing to have a master, nor be placed under anyone's duress, but always be mistress of her husband and of whatever he owned [mestresce de sun seignur e quant q'il out]" (58-61). Albina would destroy a culture which depends for its continuance on the replicative reinscription of the family, the miniature version of the patriarchal state.

After retelling the Albina story, John Hardyng wrote that "women desyre of al thynges soveraynte, and to my concept, more in this land than any other, for they have it of the nature of the said sisters." He could easily be quoting Chaucer's antimatrimonial nightmare, the Wife of Bath. The tale which the Wife tells begins, significantly, with incubi and threats of rape. Its hero is a knight who, in punishment for having casually violated a maiden, is compelled to discover what thing women most desire, and determines that "wommen desiren to have sovereyntee" (III 1038). This prideful desire for mastery in marriage motivates the Wife of Bath herself. Her prologue to her tale chronicles long fights to gain absolute dominance over a succession of five husbands, whom she consecutively reduces to subordination. The Wife of Bath inhabits that same male fantasy space from which Albina derives, so that she can be invoked by Chaucer in the "Lenvoy a Bukton" as a monstrous warning of the woe that is in marriage. Both Albina and Alisoun of Bath teach husbands that governance in marriage is as authoritarian and severe as the autocratic governance of the state. Rather than argue that this aggressive dominance comes naturally to men, or that submissiveness is an affect of the feminine body, the Albina myth naturalizes the occurrence of both by showing how, through "historical necessity," such an ordering of gendered relations came to be established. The myth constructs aggressively constricted roles for husbands at the same time as it illustrates through negative exemplum the properly domestic boundaries of the ideal wife.

Nature, Culture, and Language
This not owning of one's words is there from the start, however, since speaking is always in some ways the speaking of a stranger through and as oneself, the melancholic reiteration of a language that one never chose.
-- Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter 242

In translating into English Wace's French translation of Geoffrey's Latin Historia, Robert Mannyng of Brunne was forced to admit that he was uncertain about the existence of giants. As he describes the monsters who await the arrival of Brutus in England, Mannyng observes that: "Geant is more than man / so says the boke, for I ne kan" ("A giant is bigger than a man -- so says the book, but I don't know," The Chronicle 1751-52). They are "like men ... in flesch & bone," he asserts, even if "in my tyme, I saw neuer non" (1753-54). Mannyng's understated incredulity is endearing, but at the same time as he casts some doubt about the existence of the monsters, he is happy to pass along official information about them to his readers. Most of all, he states, giants are characterized by their similitude: they present an exact if inflated replica of a the masculine body (1755-56), a perfect simulacrum.

"Man" is used as if it were a universal category throughout Middle English writing, but in Mannyng's description of the giant it retains its gendered specificty. His "membris" and "lymes" mark the giant as man-like, but also as male -- as the description of Gogmagog and his monstrous crew which follows next in the Chronicle makes clear. The giant as the magnified, insistently physical masculine corpus is Geoffrey of Monmouth's contribution to medieval gigantology, and although Mannyng might undercut the possibility that giants existed, he does not doubt their sex. Whereas Galfridian tradition chronicles only male giants battling for supremacy against male foes, however, the Anglo-Norman Albina myth repeatedly inserts feminine and maternal bodies, even after Albina and her sisters have vanished into biological function. Invoking the giants' primal associations with sexual violation, the narrative details their race's continuance by linking its monstrous life to the transgression of what Claude Lévi-Strauss has called the first patriarchal law, the incest prohibition. The male first generation of giants begets children upon their own mothers. A cycle of historical repetition through incest is then set into motion, in which "filz et filles" (sons and daughters) engender more monsters "par grant outrage" -- sometimes on their mothers, sometimes on each other (434-36). The offspring of these unions likewise grow large, becoming a people "of immense body" (438-40). Until the arrival of Brutus, Albion exists as a hideously closed world of continuous sexual confusion which re-enacts, relentlessly, the failure of the first family triangle established in the narrative. Signification and sexuation are conjoined in their monstrous impropriety.

Maud Ellmann has observed that "Kinship laws, which govern the system of combinations in mating, correspond to linguistic laws governing the combinations of words in a sentence or letters in a word." The antifamilial, antimatrimonial system which the women established is doubly incestuous, somatically and linguistically. Its monstrousness inheres in its "bad grammar" that at first will not culturally differentiate wives from husbands, and then cannot separate mothers from children, brothers from sisters: "For without kinship nominations, no power is capable of instituting the order of preferences and taboos that bind and weave the yarn of lineage through succeeding generations." Albina does in fact establish that order of human relations which she sought to materialize through a usurped speech act, only to learn that she is excluded by the language she invokes, that its power will monstrously transform her feminine body as it flings her back to the passive materiality from which she fled. Albion under Albina devolves into a realm of pure, undifferentiated nature. It awaits the imprint of a new, masculine language to materialize an order, to precipitate culture through some foundational prohibition, through some heroic fiat.

The organization of bodies into culture through the instigation of a kinship system is very like the ordering of the phenomenological world into reality which language accomplishes, or of the past into history which narrativization executes. All three of these performances are strongly gendered acts. Yet they do not receive their gendering prior to their effects upon reality; rather, "gender" is produced through the very fantasies in which these systems ground themselves, and through the continued repetition of their "foundational" gestures. In order to assert male dominance within these structures, originary myths are invented which authorize an oppressive present through anchorage in a similar past. Lévi-Strauss bequeathed such a myth to anthropology when he wrote the Elementary Structures of Kinship, a work which equates "raw" nature with feminine bodies, and the legitimizing power of culture with the founding fathers who invent the incest prohibition (i.e., Law itself) and therefore also invent gender. According to Lévi-Strauss, "man's sexual life" (the gender of the noun is important) is originally wild, "natural" (12). The incest prohibition, synonymous with the institution of a law which generates family relations, organizes this formless sexuality into a culturally legible norm; it allows the exchange of women between men, which in turn generates endogamy and exogamy, which in turn transform nature into culture (because an "absence of rules seems to provide the surest criterion for distinguishing a natural from a cultural process," 8). Culture here is the same as kinship systems; culture arrives at the same time as "relationless" bodies are hierarchized into families.

Lévi-Strauss writes in an Aristotelian vein. Men invent the laws regulating sexuality which distinguish the human from the animal; women are passively invested with the meaning by these laws as their bodies trace paths of affiliation between the men who exchange them. Lacan reiterated this originary myth when he used Lévi-Strauss as his own foundation for a semiotics-inflected psychoanalysis: "The primordial Law is therefore that which in regulating marriage ties superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of nature abandoned to the law of mating ... This law, then, is revealed clearly enough as identical with an order of language" ("Function and field of speech and language," Écrits 66). The Albina myth is an early version of the same kind of originary narrative. It allows a masculinist logic to equate nature with femininity (a "mystery," because it is prelinguistic, and therefore also excessively corporeal), and culture and language with men (fully knowable, because they invent speech, and speech orders the world). The Albina myth, Lévi-Strauss' incest fantasy, Lacan's dream of a wholly phallogocentric language are all moments in a long history by which the masculine gender is erected as a universal, and women are allied with the abjected, the marginal, the monstrous. If the world and the linguistic structures used to understand it inevitably and eternally took their origins in this way, men and women alike would be right to heed Luce Irigaray, and despair of ever using language to construct a nonexclusive reality for all bodies, regardless of anatomy. Fortunately, the Albina myth suggests a different fate for masculinist originary fantasies: a change in the structure of linguistic and cultural signification via some historical rupture which reconfigures the "master-signifiers," resigning old myths to the quiet loneliness of the archive, where they can teach but cease to harm. No system of human meaning is ever complete, invulnerable, and impervious to history.

Like many medieval writers, Alain de Lille imagined in his "handbook" (enchiridion) on the laws of nature that the power of language over material reality, including sexuality, is absolute. A telling scene of De planctu naturae (The Complaint of Nature, c.1165) describes Genius at his writing table:
In his right hand he held a pen, close kin of the fragile papyrus, which never rested in its task of inscription. In his left hand he held the pelt of a dead animal, shorn clear of its fur of hair by the razor's bite. On this, with the help of his obedient pen, he endowed, with the life of their species, images of things that kept changing from the shadowy outline of a picture to the realism of their actual being. As these were laid to rest in the annihilation of death, he called others to life in a new birth and beginning.

The (masculine) stylus, perfect vehicle of an unfailing language, inscribes the world upon the stilled surface of the vellum -- once a living body, now passive materia. Likewise, the Anglo-Norman version of the Albina myth imagines an unchanging masculine order of pure language through which human and historical identity are solidified. Divorced from its own materiality, the male body becomes as impossibly airy, disembodied, and indestructible as a language that exists outside of time and change; the male body becomes synonymous with the frozen verba et grammatica that inscribe meaning upon the body of the world, as well as upon bodies in the world. Albina's naming of the land linguistically parallels Brutus' expressed desire for geographical immortality, his fathering of a country and a people through a name:
Albine est mon propre noun,
Dunt serra nomé Albion;
Par unt de nous en ceo pais
Rembrance serra tutdis. (ll.347-50)
Because my name is Albina, this land shall be called Albion; by this our eternal memory shall live in this country.

Compare the same scene written in the masculine gender in the Historia:
Denique Brutus de nomine suo insulam Britoniam appellat sociosque suos Britones. Uolebat enim ex diruatione nominis memoriam habere perpetuam. (13-14)

Brutus called the land Britain after himself. His intention was that his memory be made eternal through the derivation of the name.

Albina invokes the reifying power of language, as if she were a hypermasculine Trojan hero, not a monstrously transgressive Greek woman. She "repeats" in the past the same linguistic ritual which will render Brutus the generative parent of Britain. Fathering a nation (and its substructure and support, the family) is metaphorically possible without recourse to female agency; indeed, both rely upon female passivity, on the provision of a "natural state" or formless materiality on which to impose structuration. Albina's linguistic ordering of reality yields only monstrous forms: bodies which are at once male and female and incestuous, bodies that do not know their proper cultural place because they pre-exist the masculine "invention" of place. Brutus is able to repeat the same words and, by reference to a linguistic authority his by dint of the subject-position from which he articulates his words, he produces a nationalistic matrix for the proper gendering of identities, a model for male dominance.
In Brutonian history, both the monsters and the feminine body vanish at this moment of origin, evacuated of meaning "in their own right" and installed into the progress narrative of history. Like those monumental statues in Guildhall, they commemorate a monstrous past which exists only to envalue an architecture of power in the present. This haunting presence-in-death is foregrounded by giving the giants an archeological reality. The monsters are visible now not only as huge petrified bones qe hom puet trover / En mult des leus de la terre ("which a man can find in many places across the land," 443-56), but as earthworks and ruins. The narrative stresses that these remnants are, like Gogmagog's Leap in Geoffrey's Historia, still a part of the landscape of England. Past and present intersect and filiate. Brutus slaughters the giants upon his arrival in Britain, but he spares Gogmagog. This giant tells him the very tale which Des grantz geanz itself relates: the creation and lineage of the giants, how they came into the land, and why Britain should once have been called Albion. Brutus responds by ordering the story memorialized "so that others afterwards might know the marvel of this story," 543-4. Appropriately enough, historical narrativization is performed through the mouth of a monster.

Medieval England is far from alone in imagining that its land was once ruled by a primordial matriarchy. The Albina myth partakes of a long tradition of fantasies of female sovereignty. One manuscript of Guiron le Courtois, a French grail quest romance which opens with a survey of English history, compares the Greek sisters directly to the archetypal gynecocracy of the West, the Amazons. Since the publication of Jacob Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht in 1861, many scholars have seen in the pervasive literary imaginings of primal matriarchies like the Amazons an encoding of historical fact. Other critics have pointed out that these myths of female rule function instead to justify the subjugation of women "by providing a purportedly historical account of how this reality came about." Such times and places in the Western imagination are primarily the creations of men, who imagine these inversions in order to validate their own dominant position. According to the classical myth, Theseus invades the Amazonian mutterland, and the rebuked matriarchs are transformed into properly subordinated wives. Similarly, Brutus and his men purge the land of its subhuman citizens in order to rewrite the wrongdoing of the Greek sisters. Along the way, they also establish a double sovereyntee: for the management of the nation, and for the management of the family. In both, the feminine body is conjoined with the monster, to vanish in a foundational act.

The story of Albina's colonization of England was wildly popular. Manuscript evidence suggests that the narrative was originally composed in Anglo-Norman, then quickly translated into English and then Latin. As Carley and Crick point out, vernacular texts were rarely rendered into Latin in the Middle Ages, so that "when it did occur, it represented an elevation of the text, its enshrinement in linguistic authority." This translation into the language of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae also marks an elevation into history: from the early fourteenth century to the last surviving days of the giants in Guildhall, the maternal body and the monstrous with which it is intimately connected receive a foundational, structural positioning within the identity of the English historia. Albina and Gogmagog become mother and son.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Three announements

  • ITM congratulates reader Nick Haydock on the publication of his book MOVIE MEDIEVALISM: THE IMAGINARY MIDDLE AGES. You can view a blurb -- as well as his awesome awesome awesome book cover -- here. Well done Nick!
  • On Sunday 6 April (4pm, BST), BBC Radio 4's bookclub will be discussing Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The program is repeated on Thursday 10 April, 4pm BST. Details here. For bringing this to our attention ITM thanks Kate Ash of the University of Manchester who writes "I was at the recording of the programme and Armitage provided an insightful discussion of his work."
  • The following special issue of parallax will be of interest to many ITM readers. Thank you, MOR, for sending it my way:
    'The Life of the Gift' 16:1 (54)
    parallax calls for papers for a themed issue on the life of the gift, to be edited by Myra J. Hird, Professor and Queen's National Scholar at Queen's University, Ontario The aim of this themed issue is to invite critical reflections upon a broadly defined understanding of 'gifting' and its purchase on enduring interdisciplinary issues and debates (such as 'cost-benefit' scenarios) centred on culture/nature, human/nonhuman, self/other and foreign/familiar bifurcations. It begins with a series of questions about gifting as ontology: Can gifting be 'embodied' if it has no presence and is only an economic relation? If giving is often corporeal and non-volitional, then what about gifts between humans and other-than human bodies? How might we recognize and respond with such gifts, for instance the corporeal gifting of 'companion species', natural disasters, health, symbioses, ecology, nano-engineering, reproduction and so on? If we can enter into relations of give and take with nonhuman others, what about their relations with each other? Can we imagine giving or gifting as a condition beyond human life, or even beyond life? What is lost and what is gained – what ethical openings and foreclosures are enabled – by such a radical extension? Contributions are welcomed from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities including philosophy, critical theory, cultural studies, post-colonial studies, history, literature, art history, film studies and the visual arts, geography, sociology, gender studies, queer theory, biology and physics. Contributors may also wish to provide more empirically focused analyses of gifting. We particularly welcome contributions that approach the topic from interdisciplinary perspectives. Submission Deadline: 1 December 2008.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mothers (and Giants) to Think Back Through

Maybe you know what to do with the Arthurian opening of the Wife of Bath's tale. I don't, not quite, but then again, I've only just started my path towards planting my flag on some portion of Chauceriana. I found one answer in Patricia Clare Ingham's "Utopia, Conquest, and the Wife of Bath's Tale," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.1 (2002) 34-46, but I'm sorry to say I found it more interesting than convincing. I'm sure the fault is my own. Ingham argues on behalf of the pastoral against its critics, who condemn it for its occlusions of material realities. In her hands, the pastoral and other utopian fantasies of the time before the proliferation of "halles, chambres, kichenes, boures / citees, burghes, castels, hye toures / Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes" (3.869-71) become a site of fantasy for the conquered and therefore a way to read past the conquering, dominant culture to otherwise lost voices. However, although a British Arthur is always a Welsh hero, although there's Celtic myth and memory in the loathly lady, the sovereignty hag, or whatever you want to call her, and although "Britons" (3.858) could be Welsh, I just can't hear the Welsh in the Wife's Tale. Maybe I don't have my ear pressed hard enough to the ground.

What I do sense are incubi, now exorcised by the friars, and the elf-queen, all of whom, inspired by Ingham, I read as a site of fantasy. As much as we love Gowther's father, his fourteenth-century fame barely rates in comparison to the cultural dominance of the incubi of the Albina legend. In a story that was translated from Insular French into Middle English, Latin, and Welsh--and what follows is a summary of one version--a Greek princess and her twenty-nine sisters plot to murder kings whom their father, a more powerful king, wants them to marry. Betrayed by the youngest sister, the remaining sisters are sent into exile on a rudderless boat, which drifts to an island christened Albion, after the oldest sister, Albina. After living for a time on a vegetarian diet, the sisters rejuvenate themselves with wild game and grow lustful. Their lust attracts incubi, by whom the sisters engender gigantic children. The children then breed with their mothers, and everyone continues interbreeding. Thus the island fills up with giants, who fight with each other so viciously that by the time Brutus arrives, 270 years later, only 24 giants remain, including a giant named Gogmagog who tells Brutus their history.

For a tale dominated by Guinevere, the voices of wives, widows, and maidens, and by an magical crone, I want Albina and her sisters to be its first gynocentric model of rule. It's a stretch, but I also want Albina and her sisters to be the "ladyes foure and twenty and yet mo" (3.992) that the rapist sees fleetingly "under a forest syde." I want Albina and her children to be an alternate genealogy for the Wife, one that's traced backed to a founding mother. After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage (think here of the women in the prologue, so many of whom--okay, two--are named Alys); nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.

In essence, I want to trapdoor Ingham; but mainly I want to watch the Wife trapdoor everyone else. I want to read the first line of the tale, "In th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour" (3.858) not as "In the old days, the time of King Arthur" but as "In the days Arthur would have considered old," the time when in fact "this land fulfild of fairye" (3.859). After all, so far as I know (folklorists? Arthurian specialists?), in Arthur's time the land was mainly full of knights, who sometimes encountered a scattered a fairy or two like Gromer Somer Joure or a faux fairy like Bertilak; for throngs of fairies, we need to go back to Albina's day. Following Ingham, we might be able to recover Welsh resistance in this monstrous origin; but I think we can follow this back still further, to the Wife's own desires. What that would get us I don't know yet (please don't say the presymbolic Maternal!).

Hell, I don't know if I'm just recapitulating something that's been said 100 times already.

But, correcting for the nobility, I can't help but hear the Wife in this:
My fair sustres, ful weel ȝe knowiþ þat þe kyng oure fadir, vs hath reprouyd, schamed & dispised, for encheson to make vs obedient vn-to oure housbandes; but certes þat schal y neuere, whiles þat I lyve, seth þat I am come of a more hyere kynges blod þan my housband is.
And I'm not even sure I have to correct for the high kindred of Albina, since, after all, the Wife is so puffed up that "in all the parisshe wife ne was ther noon / that to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; / and if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she / that she was out of alle charitee" (1.449-52). And, if I can sense Albina in the tale's own prologue, maybe I can account for an episode that--maybe--doesn't get the respect it deserves. What the next step would be, I don't know yet.
(conversations continue below, and much excellence to read that merits more conversation: the Carnivalesque; Publishing and Our Discontents; the Frenchness of English Jews; Mary Kate on monsters and resistances to knowledge; and, of course, Eileen's mother of a post and its gigantic thread, "On the Virtues (and Loves) of Beautiful Singularities": all great stuff)

(image scanned from the delightful English Popular Art of Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Carnivalesque XXXVII: The Tiny Shriner Ancient/Medieval Edition

In that hour when the light has the fineness of sand,
I happened on a street unknown to me,
ample and broadly terraced,
whose walls and cornices
took on the pastel color of the sky
that nudged the horizon.
. . . . .
Only later did I come to think
that the street of that afternoon was not mine,
that every house is a branching candlestick
where the lives of men burn
like single candles. --Jorge Luis Borges, "Unknown Street"

It's that Carnivalesque Logo time again, and for this ancient/medieval edition, the Tiny Shriner is your guide. Although he appears immobile, even water-logged, on the ledge of JJC's office window, he's a veritable time-traveler, a frequent flyer, a regular at the Metropole, a flaneur of the alleys of cyber- and other spaces. For this venture, we at In The Middle stitched for him a tiny backpack loaded with tiny ham-and-cheese sandwiches, tiny pickles, two tiny bottles of Sancerre, a tiny handheld g.p.s. p.d.a, tiny Marvel comix and issues of Vogue [for the down-times], extra tiny black ties [to always look spiffy], and a tiny bag of bread crumbs [so he could find his way back]. We picked him up yesterday at the Foggy Bottom metro stop, and while his arms were tired, his heart was brimming over with these notes and letters and burning arrows from the ancient/medieval blogosphere:

WARNING: Because the Tiny Shriner has taken a New Year's vow to try to live a life that is as anti-hierarchical, anti-organizational, anti-schematic, and anti-linear as possible [and that also includes room for more meetings in the dark], he offers these worthy entires in no particular order, but he gives all of them his recommendation. After all, he bound them all together in a fascicle, a quire, a papery bundle, a rolled broadsheet, and he leaves them here as fragments.

From Muhlberger's Early History, we have the supposed recent discovery of the corpse of Hugh Despenser the Younger, the "favorite" of Edward II who was executed by "drawing and quartering" in 1326, and whom Muhlberger describes as a "terror victim." And over at Zenobia: The Empress of the East, the question is asked: "Was Philip the Arab a Secret Christian?"--likely not, but at the very least, he might have been some kind of sympathizer to Christians during the earlier reigns of anti-Christian terror. The slipperiness of descriptions of mounted calvary soldiers in medieval wars, which can lead to "the illusion of chivalry," is fruitfully explored at The Wapenshaw. Since we're in the groove of torture and morbidity, the Tiny Shriner is excited to broadcast the news of a weblog, Executed Today, entirely devoted to the "unrepresentative but arresting view of the human condition across time and circumstance from the parlous vantage of the scaffold." Check out, especially, Perpetua's end on March 7th in 203 and Dante's execution in 1302 on March 10th. And just in case disinterments and executions get you down, you might be happy to know about the re-interment of 3,000 eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon skeletons. But enough about torture, terror, war and death; what about elves and fairies? Richard Scott Nokes over at Unlocked Wordhoard contemplates the relation of medieval elves and fairies to contemporary bugs, viruses, and aliens.

How do we write a book and "master" the "vast and complex archives without re-instating master narratives over them? is the important question recently explored by Stephanie Trigg. How do glossing and phenomenology "both express a longing to go beyond words and images to the reality of things themselves, not by transcending words and images, but by entering more deeply, perversely, wonderfully into them, by conjuring the presence of the res ipsa apophatically, via explanation as the intensification of absence, as the presencing by absencing of what is explained"? Ask Nicola Masciandaro at The Whim. Thinking about Nicola just always naturally leads the Tiny Shriner to the question: Was Moses tripping when he saw God? Check out Archaeporn's skeptical take on this question at "A Review of Methodology in Biblical Entheogens." Did you ever want Hellenistic illustrations on your Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers, but it seemed too much to ask for? Look no further than here. Should "medievalism" sometimes give us pause? Yes, says Jeff Sypeck, especially in relation to medieval toy shopping and the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in his post "Your face, your race, the way that you talk . . . ." Can you write about sex and still be successful? The question seems a tiny bit odd to the Tiny Shriner [but then, what does he know?], but see the answer for yourself at Magister et Mater's post, "Sex, historians, and assumptions."

The Tiny Shriner has to confess something: does anyone do professional "problems" and "dilemmas" and "questions" within medieval studies and academic life more generally better than Dr. Virago? Probably not, and it's worth sharing here more than one of her recent posts, as well as the responses she often inspires in other corners of the academic blogosphere: so, regarding what kind of "life" it is, and what kind of "work" we do within a humanities department, check out "From Dr. Virago's e-mail inbox," as well as caught in the snide's response, "On Teaching, Research, and the Academic Class System." Equally interesting is Dr. Virago's response to the "Why I Teach Literature" meme: "Why I Teach Medieval Literature," and also Matthew Gabriele's contribution to this discusson over at Modern Medieval and Larry Swain's at The Ruminate. Our very own Mary Kate Hurley had an early volley in this meme over at her blog Old English in New York. Finally, and ever more recently, Dr. Virago has sparked a lively discussion on publishing and visibility within medieval studies, to which we at In The Middle have responded here. And just so we don't think it's always about "us," Dr. Virago also had a lovely and moving [if brief] post recently about remembrance, Chaucer, and the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University.

Did they have "fan fiction" in the Middle Ages? Carl Pyrdum at Got Medieval has some thoughts on that. Might it be true that, after the passing of the Pax Romana, there was "no catastrophic break, rather antiquity faded into the medieval period seamlessly and qualitatively life went on"? Check out Razib's answer in "The Material Consequence of the Pax Romana" at the group weblog Gene Expression. How weird can the intersection between the medieval and modern get? The state of Arizona is interested in building a moat to keep out Mexican immigrants, that's how weird. Do societies really "evolve"? Phil Paine says that when we think so, we're "Barking Up the Wrong Tree." Is the so-called "Secret Gospel of Mark" a "find or a forgery"? Thoughts on Antiquity shares an interesting panel discussion on the subject. What happens to our books when we're dead and gone? Mary Beard has some answers in "Dead Men's Books," but be forewarned: it isn't all pretty. Wait, didn't we say above we're taking our leave of morbidity and turning away from the icky dead? So let's stick with Mary Beard, who is usually fun, and ask, "What Made the Romans Laugh?" But be forewarned [again]: you may not get the joke. Finally, the Tiny Shriner would like to say that he always wanted more sex out of the Gospel of Philip, and now, thanks to Philip Harland, he's got it. Yes, this is a good place to stop.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

An interesting conversation about publishing ...

... was fueled in small part by a recent toss-away Speech Act of mine, and can be read at Quod She. Thanks for starting it, Dr. V.

EDIT 3/16
Here's what I wrote over there, corrected ever so slightly:

It's a great set of questions, Dr V, and I'm glad that my frivolous comment masquerading as a Speech Act helped spur something deeper.

Anything peer reviewed typically counts highly to both a college/university tenure committee and to an outside reviewer of a tenure case. Period. It doesn't usually matter at all whether it is a journal or a collection of essays so long as it has been declared kosher via this secretive process which only allows truth to emerge. [Though I have served on a university T&P Committee in which different disciplines sometimes attempted to impose their own ratings -- i.e., an analytical philosopher who decreed that refereed journal articles were the gold standard; he declared this for no good reason that I could discern other than that this is what people in his field say to each other, and so it seemed to him a universal verity]

Personally, I think this reliance upon the magic phrase "peer reviewed" is an excuse for evaluators NOT to use their own brains, to read something and judge it for themselves. Anyone who thinks about peer review for more than a few seconds will immediately realize what a fallible system it is, susceptible to abuse and to favoritism at every turn.

As to the Medievalist Trifecta [of JMEMS, Exemplaria, and Speculum]: what Karl doesn't know is that when you complete it as I've outlined, a secret committee of medievalists who watches over such things sends you a small bouquet of flowers, a medal, and a certificate suitable for framing.


One more thing: it was JMEMS's obsession with special topics that allowed me to place an essay there (in an issue on medieval race, just as I was working on the topic). Exemplaria worked because I proposed and assembled a cluster myself (on medieval noise) ... and Speculum accepted my piece because at the time I submitted there was a sympathetic editor there whom I suspected would send my essay to readers who would take it seriously, and not to some dessicated crank who would inveigh against use of theory, style, or whatever else was causing scholarly dyspepsia on that day. Thus, I believe, did the first mention of Deleuze and Guattari make its way into Speculum. Writing for that journal was really an exercise in adapting my methods to its love of Latin and its copious footnoting of obscure works in multiple languages. It was actually a lot of fun to do that essay, a little piece called "The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich."

On a related note, that same Speculum editor is the one who plucked my edited collection The Postcolonial Middle Ages out of the "Also Received" dustbin (where the books go that will not be reviewed in the journal; it's that list of doomed orphans at the back of each issue). He reviewed the volume himself, sympathetically. Peer review gone right? No, a further example of the fallible chain of human actors who have a profound influence upon work they may or may not take with appropriate seriousness. I could go on and on about the license to be crazy or mean or police-like that the anonymity of peer review can grant ... but I want to stress that my "Trifecta" essays saw light of day not because peer review declared them to be True, but because of strategy, opportunity, and realization of the network of human actors behind publishing. [Also in there, I would like to think they had something valuable and original as well. I don't want to make it seem that I'm saying you can write anything and publish it so long as you pitch it correctly ... two of the three of the essays I'm speaking of benefited immensely from the serious, helpful, and probing comments of the readers.]

And I add, now: for these reasons medieval studies owes a great debt to scholars like Bonnie Wheeler and Al Shoaf who have nurtured challenging and unconventional projects and who have gently guided to print writing that could easily sink should peer review go wrong.

In March, July, October, May / The Ides fall on the fifteenth day

ITM wishes all of its readers a propitious Ides of March. Avoid the Forum ... and celebrate in the traditional way: with a Caesar salad washed down by an Orange Julius.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Festive Fridays: Get Your Fossil On

This just in: according to Entertainment Weekly's most recent Shaw Report [by Jessica Shaw], fossils are "in," skeletons are "five minutes ago," and hieroglyphics are "out." And here is Jeffrey Cohen, on his way to UPenn on Tuesday to talk fossils, neoliths, and the "weight of the past." We know he's "got his fossil on," but what about you?

The Frenchness of Medieval Jews in England

Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England has been copyedited; the contributors and I are deep in the process of accepting, rejecting, and tinkering. I'm fiddling with the talk and attendant PowerPoint barrage I'll be presenting at U Penn next Tuesday (and at the University of Maryland at the end of April). My packet of proposed hires for next year is due along with the thousand administrative odds and ends that, once put to rest, will allow me not to step foot in my office during the entirety of spring break. That's a long of saying: Nothing new here today, folks.

BUT, connected to a post I recently wrote that
loosely tied medieval French to Hebrew, here's something more historical that makes this union more explicit. The following is an early version of what eventually appeared in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles (go there for the bibliography and footnotes, which I am not reproducing). It's about the lingering Frenchness of the Jews in England, and how this tinge of the Franci may have absorbed some indigenous animus initially directed towards the Normans.

The Jews of Norwich
[Besides the native English and conquering Normans,] a third community precariously inhabited this city of uncertainties, a group both alien and alienated. Within the powerful Norman minority was a more tenuous francophone community, the Ashkenazic Jews who had begun to make permanent settlements in England in the days of Conqueror. Having followed the international trade routes which linked Norwich to their communities in Normandy and the lower Rhineland, these Jewish immigrants had been resident in the city for no more than a decade when the events narrated by Thomas [of Monmouth, in his Life of St William of Norwich] occurred. Although the Norwich Jews lived among the Christians rather than in a separate Jewry, according to V. D. Lipman's extensive research their habitations were for the most part located in what Domesday had called the city's novus burgus, the French borough of Mancroft, founded in the shadow of the castle:
To the south and south-east of the market place lived most, though not all, the Jews of medieval Norwich. They lived between the castle and market … Thus they were in the midst of the most populous part of the city; and near to the centres of royal and civic authority … It is noticeable that these groups of houses are all near the new market place in the new 'French' settlement and that they are also within easy reach of the castle, which was the headquarters of the representative of royal authority specially charged with the oversight and protection of the Jews, and which also served as a refuge for them in times of disturbance.

The Jewish community was at once marginal and central: small in number, nonparticipants in the rituals that bound Christians to each other, but as moneylenders the lifeblood of Norwich's commercial prosperity. They were geographical and economic intimates with the Franci de Norwic [Normans], a people with whom they shared a language and in many cases an origin , since most English Jews prior to 1154 arrived from Normandy.

Although they must have known some English and a modicum of Latin to conduct effective business, French was the vernacular of the Jews, a domestic and conversational tongue spoken among themselves and with Christians of the upper classes. Because it was the language they employed at home, English Jews tended to bear francophone appellations, often translations of their Hebrew names. Contemporary Jewish literacy consisted of facility in Hebrew, sometimes in Latin, and invariably in French. Norwich's cathedral, castle, and new borough might be inhabited by people of Norman heritage who conducted many of their interactions en français, but these residents of the city likely thought of themselves as English. Anglicization did not penetrate England's Jewish communities as it did the households of former Normans. The Jews remained a French-speaking people who continued to cultivate ties with their relations on the continent, especially Rouen. At a time when the kingdom of England was literally becoming more insular (Normandy was temporarily lost during Stephen's reign), the Jews maintained strong connections to the continent, making them an international group resident within a dwindled national community.

Even to francophone Christians, the Jews seemed a people set forever apart. Whereas for most citizens of Norwich the centers of community were the local church and the city's cathedral, the Jews attended their synagogue and did not live according to the ritual calendar that gave the Christian year its structure. The long solemnity of Lent and Easter, the festivity of Christmas, the multiplicity of holy days that called the city to communal prayer, celebration, or repentance meant nothing to a people who still awaited their messiah and who could not believe in the sacred magic of the saints. Few as they were, the Jews formed a national community more than a local one -- evidenced, for example, by the fact that they sent their dead to London to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. They enjoyed royal protections not available to local citizens; they continued to speak French in an environment that was becoming increasingly dominated by English; even their households were different, Jewish women more fully participating in domestic governance and public business than Christian women did. The Jews seemed ultimately to be alieni of a different order, disturbingly uninterested in or incapable of the assimilation [into a singular English community] that their neighbors in the new borough of Norwich were undergoing.

Linguistic, religious, and cultural otherness rendered the Jews easy targets for animus and anxiety that endured in the wake of the city's profound social, structural, architectural transformation. As the first Jewish settlers arrived in Norwich, the wooden fortifications of the Norman castle had just been replaced with a stone keep. The cathedral church, monastic buildings, and bishop's palace were likewise nearing completion or had just been finished. Jurnet, Norwich's wealthiest moneylender, had a stone house built for his family in the 1170s and employed the same masons who had previously toiled on some of the cathedral buildings. Emily Rose speculates that this house was meant to replace the wooden domicile in which [the boy 'martyr'] William had supposedly been crucified, allowing Jurnet to raze the now notorious building. In the decade following William's death this house was perhaps on its way to becoming an unofficial pilgrimage site where observers hoped to spot the boy's blood on the timbers, just as Thomas of Monmouth had done. Jewish homes in the new borough's marketplace provided a constant visual reminder of the shift in the city's economic and social gravity. This transferal of power would have accelerated after the Jews arrived in the 1130s, catalyzing further mercantile and monetary activity. Norwich's Jewish population appeared, in other words, just in time to embody every Norman transformation wrought upon the fabric of English Norwich. Perhaps that is why when the supposed messenger arrives to offer the boy William a position in the archdeacon's kitchen, his mother cannot tell whether the man who leads away her son is a Christian or a Jew (1.4). In her English eyes and to her English ears, all the francophone residents of the new borough -- whether attached to the cathedral or practicing an alien faith -- are foreigners. As much as their difference in creed, it must have been the Jews' lingering Frenchness that triggered historical resentments having much to do with the lingering memory of the effects of the conquest.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wondering about the Wonders: CELCE's "Crossing Borders"

If writing -- and, shall I add, blog writing -- is a practice, I've clearly fallen down on the job lately. I like to think of it as "dissertation block." It's like writer's block, only it happens more slowly: first, you start noticing that every time you sit down to write those 20 pages of dissertation material for your adviser, your chest gets tight and you feel the compulsive need to do yoga until you have to go to an appointment (which conveniently eliminates the chest tightness as the dissertation time you'd planned). Eventually, you find it extending to every time you sit down at a computer -- whether it's to write an email, comment on a student draft, or even write a blog post. I'm actually in a the midst of a short post on this very topic -- titled, in honor of this new stage of my grad school career, "Growing Pains." However, for today, I thought I'd post about another New York City Medieval Happening (and if you missed a very fruitful Happening LAST Friday -- read Eileen's latest below!)

Tomorrow, I will take part in the the CELCE conference at NYU: "Crossing Borders". In fact, in mere minutes, I will be traveling south on the 1 train to Christopher Street, and trekking over to the conference location in order to hear Carolyn Dinshaw's keynote address.

Tomorrow, however, I will be debuting a version of a paper I wrote two years ago (and will repeat in altered format at Kalamazoo). It's called "The Space Between: Mapping Monsters in the Old English Wonders of the East." In it, I will argue that the location of the Mambres and Jamnes section of the Wonders, in the largely "scientific" focus of the MS Cotton Tiberius, actually makes an argument for how monsters ought to be encountered (textually or otherwise): as a strict warning that some knowledge isn't meant to be known. Mambres and Jamnes are, of course, the magicians who go up against Moses and Aaron, and the text of the Mambres section of the Tiberius tells of how the damned soul of Jamnes warns his brother that by learning "the deep secrets of his idolatry" (literally, the word is deoflegildes -- devil-wages!) he too shall be banished to a hell-pit, which is 2 x 4 cubits (ah, the level of detail!).

This paper has plagued me for a long time. Originally, and ultimately (if I ever revise it into an article), I was making a much larger argument about contingency, monstrous bodies, and dangerous knowing. It used a lot of Agamben, and so engaged my major difficulty with theoretical texts: I am utterly incapable of writing about them. I think that that indeterminate status of a contingency is still present in the part of the paper I will post here: however, I should note that you're not missing anything about Agamben, as I have completely cut him from the argument for lack of space and eloquence. Here follows (in beautiful, Word 2007 formatting!) a portion of my conclusion. I've been told it's too poetic, and hence too unclear. I'll probably clean it up a bit come time for the conference tomorrow. But for now -- poetics and all -- I offer the conclusion to my go on the monsters.

Of course what I really want to know: Anybody catch the Dave Matthew's Band reference in the title?

The message implied by the Mambres section is that the creatures of the Wonders are so guarded [by dangers, threats and distance] because they are not meant to be known. The text is not attempting to illuminate their existence so much as their meaning. Like the trees of the Letter of Alexander, the knowledge apportioned to each man is limited: Ac ne frign ðu unc nohtes ma ne axa, for þon wit habbað oferheloðred þæt gemære uncres leohtes (But ask no more of the two of us, for we have spoken beyond the limits of our light).[1] Just such a limit may also be intimated by the Wonders, by the descriptions that approach but never fully see the far off creatures the text treats. Creatures that do not fit into regulatory categories may be monsters, and it seems better to take from them the lesson they may teach than to know what they are in themselves. Their message is acceptance, a lack of querying, and the injunction of the trees: ne frign. These creatures are different, and some are dangerous, and traveling to find them is itself marked by obstacles that may be set in place for a reason. If one does ask – if one opens the books, and learns by this opening the secrets of the deep mysteries, the risk is of one’s own dissolution. The marvel takes the unwary explorer in – into a hell-pit of 2 by 4 cubits, or more chillingly, inside itself via ingestion.[2] The specifics of their existence are not the point: rather, their warning against inquiry and the dangers of knowing monsters allows the reader to escape entrapment by his own arcane knowledge.

Monsters and marvels are dangerous because they defy categorization, they hybridize, and they hijack human language to use for their own monstrous purpose. The unsettling suggestion of Wonders is that these creatures might not be simply “bodies” that signify only God’s power over the physical, his ability to raise the physical, human body from the dead written in His creation of bodies fantastic.[3] Rather, more than just the inhabitants of Ciconia may be “thought to be men” – a potential best left unexplored, and its consequences left unsuffered. Thus the final injunction of the Mambres and Jamnes segment of the text leaves us where the text began -- in the midst of an unresolved possibility of beings, fragmented beyond perfect comprehension of a reason, with only the stern warning that it isn’t ours to know, or even to ask about. We end with two magicians, deep secrets of idolatry, knowledge written in books, and the warning that some things are not supposed to be known.

[1] Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, 253.

[2] Jeffrey Cohen’s visualization of the Donestre (as literally incorporating was key in connecting these concepts. Cf. Of Giants p. 3-5, most specifically: "in the last scene of the narrative, the traveler has been completely transformed. The severed head is an empty point of fascination that directs the viewer’s gaze back to the alienating form in which the traveler is now contained, at the monster he has now become."

[3] Cf. Austin for a cogent description of Augustine’s theory. Austin, Greta. “Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races ? Race and the Anglo-Saxon
Wonders of the East
” in Marvels, Monsters and Miracle: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Ed. Timothy S. Jones and David A Sprunger. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002.

cross posted at Old English in New York.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Here Now Is One Who Will Increase Our Loves: On the Virtues (and Loves) of Beautiful Singularities

Figure 1. Terminal at JFK Airport

I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and over again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: put your cards on the table.—Amy Hempel, “Tumble Home”

We are neither present in the world nor absent from it.—Leo Bersani, “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject”

I am recently back from New York City and the Medieval Club of New York’s panel, “Subjects of Friendship, Medieval and Medievalist,” and the experience—of the talks and commentary at the panel itself but also of hanging out in NYC with assorted [and lovely] persons I have known or am getting to know—has left me with more questions than I know how to answer as regards friendship, ethics, eros [broadly defined, for me, as a life-force, of which sexuality is only one powerful symptom], love, humanism, and the practices of our profession [the humanities, most broadly], all subjects that have been obsessing me of late, especially in relation to their inter- or disconnectedness with each other [and the cognitive dissonances that often result when they don’t “hook up,” and that we have to navigate every day in our traffic within the university, and elsewhere]. I have spent a long-ish amount of time reading the philosophy and theory of ethics, love, friendship, and sexuality [of course, my bibliography could never be complete], and I am feeling, finally, somewhat dissatisfied with the ideas, expressed variously by different thinkers, that my relationship to the Other [whether as someone for whom I am responsible or as someone I want to approach in love or friendship or desire] can only be accomplished through various acts of world- and self-cancellation and through leave-takings of the forms of embodiment with which I am most familiar [and for which my longing longs]. In some way [I have no idea how, really, so help me, please] I want to contest Leo Bersani’s notion that intersubjecvtivity, “as we have come to prize it in western culture . . . is a reining in, a sequestering, of our energies” [Homos, p. 124]. Or, as he also puts it, “Our complex views of intersubjectivity, nourished by an intricate consciousness of desire, have the effect of channeling our imagination of human relations into the narrow domain of the private” [p. 123]. And what is proposed, as an antidote to all this [and also to avoid a definition of “all relations as property relations”], is that
we move irresponsibly among other bodies, somewhat indifferent to them, demanding nothing more than that they be as available to contact as we are, and that, no longer owned by others, they also renounce self-ownership and agree to the loss of boundaries which will allow them to be, with us, shifting points of rest in a universal and mobile communication of being. [p, 128]
It is as if a certain de-familiarization is seen as prerequisite to truly seeing or experiencing the Other, friendship, love, sexuality, freedom, etc., and the will to de-familiarize could even be said to constitute the most insubordinate and revelatory act, one that allows everything, even history (especially history), to “come undone” and to also “come unstuck” from the “difference” that we write [often violently] upon all the forms that cross our field of vision, as forms, or figures. And the truest “community” could only be one “in which the other, no longer respected or violated as a person, would merely be cruised as another opportunity, at once insignificant and precious” [Homos, p. 129].

Yes, yes, yes, I know that everything—especially identities—as Bersani has written, “spill over” and that we “exist, in both time and space, in a vast network of near-sameness” [Homos, p. 146], and therefore, we should work very hard on new relational modes that would be, in a sense, beyond identity [with Bersani and other theorists’ “cruising” or Howie’s “think what it means to reach out in the dark” standing in as the best modes of “contact”—yet since I came of age, as it were, in the decadent gay bars and Act Up protests of Capitol Hill in the mid-1980s, I sometimes want more than the queer politics or queer ethics that always draws, for its metaphors, or inspiration, upon the material circumstances of the death-haunted and often mindless and drug-enhanced escapades of my youth—and yes, I said “mindless,” intentionally, because now, now I want the mind involved and saying that the best sexuality somehow has to involve the divestiture of the self is also like saying, how can I leave my mind behind? And why is it, whether we’re talking Plato or queer theory or theology, that escaping or shedding the self, which is also the mind which is also the body, is always seen as the best thing, the higher thing?]. And yet, I don’t want to let go of some kind of notion of identity that would be, hopefully, non-oppressive and open to its relational “allness” [as Bersani and Dutoit might say, pace Forms of Being], but which would also mark, in both time and space, the instance [or moment] of an always beautifully different singularity [or shining “oneness”—is this Bersani’s “point of rest
? I truly don’t know yet, but it could be and thereby I’d suture myself, again and again, to his thought].

And this is why, as Karl “outed” me in a recent comment to his post on “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” I do not believe that anyone or anything is “homo” [the same], and I hate the term homosexual [although, ostensibly, I am one]—could any term, similar to heterosexual, be so stupid and limiting as regards desire? To be truly “homo,” I would have to be in love [or in desire] with my clone, and let’s face it—that’s one step beyond incest; it would be the ultimate creepy encounter with the uncanny [yes, yes, I know I’m being too literal, but sometimes you have to be—let me do it sometimes, just sometimes]. The engine of desire is built on difference, or to put it another way, in the words of Elizabeth Grosz, “The ongoing production of individual differences is the internal motor, the ‘vitalist impetus’ of all of life” [The Nick of Time, p. 40]. Variation, my friends, variation, variation, variation, and this is why, as I stated at Kalamazoo last May, “we have never been homo, but we have always been hetero-queer.” [Now I suppose we could make the argument, though, that to limit one’s “mating” within a species group is a homo-ness of a type, but let’s save that discussion for another day.]

So, by way of a digression, after departing, mid-day, from Karl and Alison’s apartment in Brooklyn just this past Saturday, I ended up getting stranded at JFK airport overnight [due to the severe winter storms that had hit Ohio and Kentucky and other parts northeast]. In all of my traveling—and I have done a lot of that since I took my first overseas trip at 15 months—I have never had to stay overnight in a terminal. Of course, after seeing that my flight was cancelled [which did not become apparent until well into the evening after delays and more delays], my first instinct was to run to the nearest hotel, but since there was an outside chance I could get on a 6:00 am flight on Sunday morning, leaving the airport was not the best idea. I won’t lie: I ran through that gamut of clichéd and self-absorbed emotions that say, in one form or another: can my life get any worse than this? I want to kill myself. Why me? Why now? How will I ever survive these torments? Etc. Etc. That was for about ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Nothing is more absurd than this type of hyperbolic and misplaced self-pity. In short, it is not attractive. Then I called my friend Betsy and she reminded me that airport terminals are the perfect liminal spaces, and I should really indulge that, so I did. I proceeded to pick a vantage point from which I could watch everyone and also order martinis [the hangover the next day, my friends, the hangover], and basically . . . watch, and wonder. Yes, I like to watch, and to imagine. I imagined everyone’s private lives, the circumstances that might have brought them to this airport, and where they might be going, where they’ve been, what they’ve lost or gained, whether this is the day in which they, also stranded, reflect upon their recent losses and disappointments or upon their happinesses and pleasures, or maybe don’t think at all, like blank yet somehow humming pages, and how, ultimately, I could mean anything to any of these persons, or what they could mean to me. What if I knew them, knew them better? What are the possibilities?

And all of this immediately reminded me of how Franco Masciandaro had concluded his beautiful talk Friday evening, “Notes on Dante’s Poetics of Friendship,” with the invocation of the line, from Dante’s Paradiso: ecco chi crescerà li nostri amori [“Here now is one who will increase our loves”], which is addressed to Dante, “the anonymous pilgrim, by the equally anonymous souls concealed in light, who, appearing in the Sphere of Mercury, ‘were far more than a thousand splendors’” [F. Masciandaro]. Franco asked us to note the “plural” of their loves which “increase the moment anyone appears.” This is a moment that shares in both the infinity of a divine and “higher” [and perhaps, abstract] love but that also shows love as going out to the singular person in his uniqueness [even if anonymous, at first] at the exact moment of his arrival, which is always anticipated, and always welcome [and therefore, the divine perfection of paradise is not enough: we must have other persons, other arrivants, as it were, and they are never just anyone—how could they be? Or, am I saying that, for me, they must always be someone, someone in particular whose particularity I could relish?]. The singular person is always beautiful [and desirable] in her moment of arrival, walking, it cannot be stressed enough, in her [and only her] body. You do not know her but you will come to know her—this is the hope of love, of desire, and yet, already, even as someone anonymous, she approaches as a someone. And I can’t, or don’t want to, submit this beautiful image from Dante to Bersani’s idea, again in Homos, that the “psychology of desire” is an “essentially doomed and generally anguished interrogation of the other’s desires,” and therefore, all potentially revolutionary acts of love and desire “return over and over again, to relations of ownership and dominance” [pp. 123, 128].

To return to my original feelings of dissatisfaction, and by way of further explanation, I’ll just offer here some bits and pieces from the papers and comments delivered Friday evening [including my own], and also from some recent reading of my own, all of which have led me to start questioning, more and more, the abstractions [for lack of a better word], and also the modes of messianic delay and distancing and self-undoing and dis-attachment, even death, upon which so many of our discourses on ethics, friendship, love, and eros seems to be built, and from which I suddenly want to tear myself. There is no order in any of this; think of it as just a random, free-associative catalog even. So . . . .

In Derrida, we have the idea that it “is thanks to death that friendship can be declared. Never before, never otherwise. And never if not in recalling (while thanks to death, the friend recalls that there are no friends). And when friendships is declared during the lifetime of friends, it avows, fundamentally, the same thing: it avows the death thanks to which the chance to declare itself comes at last, never failing to come” [The Politics of Friendship, p. 302]. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we have Nietzsche’s idea that amity or friendship is a “continuation of love in which possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for . . . a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them,” and we are also exhorted, not to love of the neighbor, but rather to “flight from your neighbor and to love of the most distant.” For Maurice Blanchot, friendship is an “incommensurable relation of one to the other” in which “the other is the outside drawing near in its separateness and inaccessibility” [The Writing of Disaster, p. 50]. In Giorgio Agamben’s conception, friendship is a “de-subjectivization at the very heart of the most intimate perception of self” [“Friendship,” Contretemps 5 (2004): p. 6]. In Levinas’s conception of the face, “the face of the other is verticality and uprightness; it spells a relation or rectitude. The face is not in front of me but above me. . . . The ethical rapport with the face is asymmetrical in that it subordinates my existence to the other” [Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers, pp. 59-60]. From Aquinas, we hear that in “the love of concupiscence, we draw to us what is extraneous for us, for we love other things . . . in so far as they are useful or delectable to us. But in the love of friendship . . . similitude is the cause of love, for we do not love someone in this way unless we are one with him, and similitude is a kind of unity.” With Deleuze and Guattari, we should praise molecular flows over molar unities as well as “interbeing”: a “transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its own banks and picks up speed in the middle” [A Thousand Plateaus, p. 25], leading Foucault to wonder if what we need now is to “de-individualize by means of multiplication and displacement” [“Preface,” Deleueze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. xiv]. Count on as many fingers as you like [Freud, Lacan, Laplanche, etc.] all the psychoanalytic thinkers who view love and desire as lack or even as an aggressively destructive narcissism, or further, a death-drive. And following that, with Edelman, we could embrace that death-drive and insist that “the fate of the queer is to figure the fate that cuts the thread of futurity” and to define ourselves by that “mortality” which is “the negation of everything that would define itself, moralistically, as pro-life” [No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, pp. 30, 31]. And from Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, in a striking passage from Forms of Being, we are asked to consider how we might emit a kind of light,
a light hidden behind psychic darkness, blocked by our expressive being. To lose our fascinating and crippling expressiveness might be the precondition for our moving within nature, moving as appearances registering, and responding to the call of, other appearances. No longer darkened by the demand for love, we might be ready to receive something like the splendor, the ‘dazzling radiance,’ that Homer’s ‘blazing-eyed Athena’ casts on the humans she protects. [p. 70]
Perhaps, in the end, I do somehow align with Bersani, when he writes that the “human subject does of course exist and act discretely, separately; but its being exceeds its bounded subjectivity” [“Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject,” Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): p. 170], although I do not think our being can exceed our bounded bodies [without which our selves lack certain, I think, important vehicles of expressivity and feeling], regardless of Deleuze and Guttari’s [and others’ wild hopes to the contrary]. And this brings me back to the first philosopher who may be partly to blame [at least, in the western tradition] for insisting we view love [and even ideation] as something beyond or exterior to the body, beyond ourselves: Plato, who, in the Symposium, traces a route of a “higher” love from a love of bodies to a love of souls to a love of laws and then on to a love of wisdom. Further, in Socrates’ words, the “beautiful will not appear . . . in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear . . . as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself” [Plato, Symposium]. This idea of somehow “breaking through” the self and even the world to a more divine or “higher” perspective [and perhaps, in Bersani, to a more enworlded “allness”], continues to haunt all of our critical discourses—on ethics, on friendship, on love, and even on sexuality—and asks us, I really believe, to become angels, or other sorts of floating disembodiments, and not human beings.

According to Jonathan Lear, in his beautiful essay “Eros and Unknowing,” the really critical moment of the Symposium is the sudden and drunken disruption of Alcibiades, who expresses frustration over Socrates’ refusal to sleep with him and who is also locked in what he thinks is a struggle with Socrates over the sexual possession of Agathon. For Lear, the privileging of a conception of the divine, or “higher,” love signifies what he believes is the tragedy of the Symposium, where to follow Socrates’ account of love is to “become disdainful of one's own mortal nature, treating it as not part of one’s true self,” and this is what also “accounts for Socrates’ indifference” to Alcibiades “erotic suffering”:
Socrates has made the journey, he has become as divine as humanly possible, and though he remains in the human realm, he is no longer part of it. He looks on the humanity of the human world with the indifference of the gods. Alcibiades is, of course, as human as they come. He is trapped in the human erotic . . . . insofar as Alcibiades is trapped in the human-erotic, he can, from Socrates’ perspective, go fuck himself. It does not matter to Socrates what the consequences are. From the vantage of Athenian culture, this encounter between Alcibiades and Socrates must be judged a failure of inestimable cost. Nothing less is at stake than the future of one of [the] world's great civilizations. And yet, from a divine point of view, human politics is by and large a distraction. It just does not matter which particular form the distraction takes. [Open-Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, p. 164]
But it matters a great deal, actually, to Lear, and also to myself, “which particular form the distraction takes,” and our aim should be “not to leave the human realm behind, but to get deeper into it—its smells, feels, textures, and the imaginary meanings we give to them,” for “it is this particular [embodied] subjectivity with which we are pregnant: and it is from this that we give birth to beauty” [p. 166].

Lear’s thinking here, heavily indebted to Freud's idea that the individual “cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world,” accords well with the insight of cognitive science that, in the words of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, reason “is not disembodied, as the [Western] tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience,” and further, “reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world” [Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 4]. The peculiarity of the human body is exactly what Alcibiades cannot get around in his struggle with Socrates by whom he feels “completely possessed,” and while Alcibiades is clearly locked in a repetitive and neurotic “acting out” against Socrates, which does not allow him to grow or expand as a person, Socrates’ indifference to him further impedes his ability to individuate. In Freudian terms, Socrates essentially refuses to confront Alcibiades’ transference, which, in Lear’s words, is “in essence a form of political engagement” [p. 152].

As is well known, what I would call Alcibiades’ bad education had disastrous consequences: he vandalized the statues of the temple of Hermes by breaking off their genitals, profaned the Eleusinian mysteries, and ultimately decamped to Sparta where he betrayed Athens’ military secrets. The undoing of Alcibiades through Socrates’ indifference becomes the undoing of Athens itself, and the fault is not in Alcibiades’ inability to ascend to a higher plane of awareness—to get beyond the particular body of Socrates to an idea of a higher virtue, for that, after all, is only human—but in Socrates’ unwillingness to descend to Alcibiades, in other words, to love him, not necessarily sexually, but as person in need of a certain affectionate regard, a regard, moreover, grounded in an attachment to the human world and its well-being. And maybe this is why I was so swept away recently by Cary Howie’s book Claustrophilia, in which he writes in two sentences everything I am trying to say here: “to say I am enclosed in your mouth and I am enclosed in your hand is to inscribe a difference at the heart of you” and “being inside you is always simultaneously being beside you, irreducibly.” For me, the beautiful only really appears “in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body”—and this is where I am placing my bets, and pinning my hopes. If I have any sort of radical politics, it is only to say that I will never stop waiting for those who might still arrive and increase my loves, here, and now, while we can still experience and reckon all the accounts of our affections. Perhaps what I really want is a neo-Epicureanism.